Redevelopment’s new face

Pub date August 22, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan


City Hall’s cavernous marble corridors echoed Aug. 14 with the footsteps of a band of sharply dressed African Americans, many of them ministers and all of them come to voice support for Fred Blackwell’s appointment as executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

Blackwell, who has a master’s degree in city planning from UC Berkeley and has been working for the Mayor’s Office of Community Development since 2005, most recently as director, won’t be the first African American to occupy the agency’s top post.

But Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to nominate Blackwell was seen by many as a hopeful sign that the agency might proactively address problems that have torn apart the Bayview–<\d>Hunters Point community in the past year and continue to dog the agency in the Western Addition.

These concerns include the suspicion that Newsom’s plan to fold Candlestick Point into the already controversial Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment project is less about wooing the 49ers to stay and more about jumping into bed with Lennar Corp., a deep-pocketed and politically connected development company (see "The Corporation That Ate San Francisco," 3/14/07).

The deal gives Lennar the right to develop 6,500 new housing units and take over the cleanup of Hunters Point Shipyard — a move mayoral candidate Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai described as "the dirty transfer of the shipyard" (see "And They’re Off," 8/15/07).

A growing body of Bayview–<\d>Hunters Point residents has asked the city to temporarily shut down construction at the shipyard’s Parcel A because of concerns about the toxic dust being kicked up (see "Dust Devils," 8/1/07).

And then there’s lingering ill will from the 1960s, when redevelopment caused the massive displacement of African Americans from the Western Addition.

So will Blackwell be able to solve the agency’s deep-rooted problems? Newsom described Blackwell as "an outstanding choice" when nominating him Aug. 10, while agency commission president Rich Peterson called Blackwell "smart, of high integrity, well known by community leaders, and familiar with the unique opportunities as well as important lessons learned of redevelopment in the city."

But while commissioner Francee Covington declared that "a new day is dawning at the agency" shortly before the commission voted 7–<\d>0 to appoint Blackwell, the African American community still has its concerns.

Minister Christopher Muhammad, who has led the voicing of concerns about the Parcel A dust, was proud to see an African American in a position of leadership. "But we are still going to hold your feet to the fire," he said. "Redevelopment is not just about the redevelopment of physical structures but [also] about the redevelopment of human beings."

Noting that Blackwell is a 1991 graduate of Morehouse College, Rev. Amos Brown said, "I find no fault in this man, and you will not find any either in terms of fitness for this office," while local resident Randall Evans voiced his belief that "the only folks gonna take care of black people’s business are black folks."

Activist-journalist Ace Washington observed that Blackwell is "coming into a very hot seat. He needs some ice cubes to sit down. Only time will tell if he stands by his convictions. It doesn’t matter if the director is black, Latino, Asian, or white. All of us here are saying, ‘Ah, a breath of fresh air.’<\!s>"

Rev. Arnold Townsend said, "We trust the resources are there to help community — and not to tell the community what to do. Because until that dynamic changes, it won’t matter who is executive director."

Blackwell conceded that he had misgivings about heading an agency founded in 1948 to remove blight, a mission that many say has been tainted by racism since its inception. "I admit I was not leaping and jumping when my name first surfaced, but I look forward to working with you all," Blackwell told the commission.

Blackwell later told the Guardian he hopes "to foster a sense of equity and opportunity and a broader vision of community development."

"The legacy of redevelopment and urban renewal is not a good one," he said. "The residue is still there, but trust is only built through action."

Describing the Western Addition and Bayview–<\d>Hunters Point as "two bookends in terms of redevelopment," Blackwell said he hopes "to close out the agency’s relationship with the Western Addition and make sure responsibility is transferred seamlessly to the appropriate agencies."

As for Bayview–<\d>Hunters Point, "we should take stock of what we should and should not do, get on the right track, and create opportunities for people who live there," he said.

But Sumchai wants to put the agency under the control of the Board of Supervisors: "You could appoint Jesus of Nazareth and still have problems as long as the agency is locked into its current structure."

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi says putting an African American at the head of the Redevelopment Agency "makes a lot of sense, considering the egregious and negative impact the agency has had on the African American community…. But no matter how well-liked Fred Blackwell is, that does not compensate for the deficiencies of the Redevelopment Agency’s aims and competence."<\!s>*